As I grow older, I view military service with ever greater gratitude and respect.
The liberties that I can take for granted — for instance, the right to write this article — were secured by the sacrifices of our veterans. They risked their lives, often left their professions and separated themselves from their homes and families to protect our country. I feel this way about all who have served in our armed forces, but, perhaps because I know their stories best, on Veterans Day, I often reflect on the service of my forefathers.
I think of my great-great grandfather, a German immigrant, who, at the age of 50, enlisted to fight as a Union soldier in the Civil War. After fighting in the Peninsular Campaign, he returned to his home in Staten Island so emaciated that his family at first did not recognize him. He suffered from incurable dysentery and episodic fevers until his death three years later.
My mind turns to my grandfather who, in World War I, served in Europe as a lieutenant in the Army Corps of Engineers. He told of how a large German shell rolled to a stop in the middle of his company only not to explode.
In World War II, he returned to Europe as a colonel assigned to Gen. Dwight Eisenhower’s headquarters, assigned to the Air Corps engineering branch.
He was gone for much of my father’s early years, and they would communicate through letters. In one exchange, my father complained that, as the youngest of three brothers, he was assigned the most menial chores.
My grandfather’s response: “Understand that’s our way of getting the job done.”
But, here, I want to consider in greater depth the service of my wife’s grandfather, Harry Victor Carlson, a U.S. Marine, who, in World War I, fought the Germans in France at Belleau Wood, a battle of legendary status in the history of the Marine Corps.
By the time the U.S. joined the war in 1917, the forces of France and the United Kingdom had settled into a seemingly intractable standoff against the powers led by Germany.
On each side of a line that ran north to south, from the English Channel to neutral Switzerland, the opposing forces had dug trenches, set out barb wire, built machine gun nests and erected artillery batteries to secure their positions. Massive battles with devastating losses of life had done little to tip the balance. When not in the fight, soldiers lived much of their lives in wet, cold and muddy trenches. Nagging injuries and debilitating infections, like trench foot, were common. Food — often called “monkey meat,” a salty mixture of beef and carrots — was scarce and barely edible.
In 1918, however, the Germans were presented with a chance to break this stalemate. Up until that point, they had been fighting a two-front war against the French and British in the west and against the Russians in the East. But, in March 1918, the Russians and Germans signed the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk, in effect, the Russian’s conditional surrender brought on by both costly military defeats and internal revolution. End of hostilities on the Eastern front meant that Germany could focus on the West.
And yet Germany knew that this open window of opportunity would soon close.
On the front, German reinforcements from the East would lose their numerical advantage once American soldiers arrived in France in greater numbers.
At home, the strength and resolve of the German citizens could not take many more months of an Allied blockade that had already reduced the average daily caloric intake to one-third of its level in 1914.
With a desperate purpose, the Germans began a massive push against the Allies in the spring of 1918. By June 1918, this had brought them to within 39 miles of Paris. Their advance was slowed not only by the fighting of the Allies but also by difficulty of bringing food and ammunition to the front-line troops over lengthening supply lines. A crucial road for these supplies lead from Reims toward Paris. The towns of Belleau with its adjacent woods (a private hunting preserve) was positioned near this important route for the transport of men and materiel.
When the U.S. Marines arrived to help the French at Belleau Wood, the Germans had seized the initiative and were advancing. While the French were tired and lacked confidence, the Americans were fresh to the fight.
In a famous exchange, when a French major ordered an American captain to fall back, the captain responded: “What retreat? We just got here.”
Over the next two weeks, Harry Victor and the other American Marines battled the Germans. They fired shots from afar and engaged in hand-to-hand combat. They crossed wheat fields under fire and stormed machine gun nests. They endured bombardment with mustard gas. Of the 10,000 Marines who fought in this battle, 5,000 would be killed or injured. At the close of the battle the Marines stopped the German advance at this point on the front.
The Germans were shocked by the Marines’ tenacity and ferocity.
In a mark of grudging respect, they called their new opponents, Teufelhunden, devil dogs in German, to this day a nickname for a U.S. Marine.
For his service, Harry was awarded the Croix de Guerre, as well as the Purple Heart.
When he retuned to the U.S. after World War I, Harry married Lenore Hanrahan. They had two children and moved from Brooklyn to San Francisco.
More than 20 years later, when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, Harry wanted again to fight for his country. He attempted to reenlist as a Marine but was denied due to his age, although his injured foot would likely also have disqualified him.
After his wife died, Harry moved in with my wife’s family in Pasadena, Calif.
Although Harry never talked much about his service, he did tell my wife that a German grenade injured his foot and killed his nearby friend.
He told my brother-in-law, that a bayonet was a silent weapon that would allow you to keep the element of surprise once you got into an enemy’s trench.
A lifelong athlete, and a devotee of the early fitness guru Jack LeLane, he was 5’10” and 180 pounds into his 80s.
His war experience gave him a few dated mannerisms that we would now perhaps consider a bit insensitive and comical. For instance, he would yell at bad Los Angeles drivers, calling them “krauts” and “huns.”
In his later years, he suffered from dementia that allowed for the eruption of some painful wartime memories.
He began to exercise less frequently and would occasionally get lost in downtown Pasadena.
He died surrounded by a loving family.
The word “valor” is now so infrequently used that it has nearly become archaic.
In the intensely competitive Athenian culture, the ancient Greek writer Aeschylus was seven times awarded the prize for the outstanding play of the year. Yet, at his request, his epitaph made no mention of his accomplishments as a playwright but spoke of his role in 490 BC as an Athenian soldier at the battle of Marathon, where Greeks defeated the invading Persians, a victory that arguably allowed for the development of Western civilization as we know it.
This grave the dust of Aeschylus doth hide,
Euphoria’s son, fruitful Hera’s pride,
Of his valor Marathon may tell,
And long haired Medes who knew it well.
Thank you for your courageous service, Harry Victor Carlson, and all our veterans.
God bless you and God bless America.
Peter Frech is a radiologist who lives in Salt Lake City, Utah.